Here’s a bit of dark tale I wrote for a mirror themed monthly writing competition. Obviously, mirrors are a well-travelled theme in dark fiction and I think it’s a tricky one to write something really original. So instead, I’ve chosen to reflect some of the more common motifs. (~3745 words).
Much has been written about Nikola Tesla over the years and for good reason. His contributions to our modern world cannot be understated. In popular culture, Tesla is often portrayed as the archetypal mad scientist. In part, this can be attributed to radical concepts including death rays, earthquake machines and thought cameras. It is this blurring of Tesla’s revolutionary inventions and his flights of fancy which has generated endless speculation and countless conspiracy theories.
Amongst all the conjecture about Tesla, there are a handful of scholars that would argue that the most intriguing artefact amongst Tesla’s surviving journals was not penned by Tesla. Known as the Drake Infraction it is a letter from an English scientist by the name of Jonathon K. Drake. The letter is handwritten, dated 3rd March 1895, burnt at one corner and appears to offer a bizarre warning. It is not known if the letter was written to Tesla or if it came into his possession as there are no references to the letter in any of Tesla’s journals.
Given the letter’s bizarre contents and the lack of evidence to indicate Jonathon Drake even existed it would be easy to dismiss it as a work of fiction. Easy, that is, but for a handful of cryptic references to Drake (aka. J.K.D.) which turn up in journals of other notable scientists of the time. It’s also often noted that the letter coincided with a fire which tore through Tesla’s lab ten days later, destroying many of his experiments and journals. Some even go as far as to suggest the fire is proof that Tesla heeded Drake’s dire warning. Others speculate that the fire is the result of Tesla ignoring the warning. It is unlikely we’ll ever know for sure. A copy of the text of the letter is provided below for readers to peruse and make up their own minds as to its veracity.
I write to you on a matter of the greatest concern in the hope of dissuading you from pursuing a highly perilous course of experimentation. A course, I fear I have already trodden with disastrous results. These are likely to be my last written words, for reasons which will become apparent, and they are now the only record of my experiment and ultimate folly. Consider them a cautionary tale to any who like Narcissus might stare at their reflection too long. My name is Jonathon Drake, and this is my story. I pray you to heed it well and take measures to ensure it does not become your story.
You will not find my name in any history book. It has cost both my reputation and my fortune to expunge myself and my work from all historical accounts. While I am sure my contemporaries including Maxwell, Faraday and Hertz will, in time, be recognised for their groundbreaking scientific contributions. I will never join them in that esteemed pantheon.
If you were to peruse my humble residence, you would likely note that amongst my dusty tombs and contraptions the absence of any mirrors. You might even observe my abode lacks any surface capable of reflection. This is not by chance, but by necessity. My apologies, I get ahead of myself.
To give this story its proper beginning, we must start with a gentleman’s wager. James Clerk Maxwell and I were long-time members of the exclusive Darlinger Club and would on occasion meet to enjoy the excellent cuisine and to exchange ideas. Maxwell’s study of magnetism and electricity had been the subject of much of the conversation during one particular evening and Maxwell had become quite animate about his novel ideas to unify those forces. By the time we poured the port, the conversation had become a heated debate about light forming part of what he called his electromagnetic spectrum. To my mind, this was a preposterous proposition. The study of optics being my primary purview, I was wholly unconvinced by his arguments. So much so, I wagered I could construct an experiment to dissuade him of his delusion. We eventually shook hands on a wager of a bottle of 1820 Ferreira Garrafeira port.
The next day, much the worse for wear, I’d all but forgotten about the wager until I went to write my journal. In the cold light of day, Maxwell’s theories seemed even more absurd than they had the night before and sliding on my spectacles and sharpening my pencil, I considered how I might disprove his nonsense and secure for myself the delicious prize.
The basis of my experiment would be to make visible all wavelengths by a complex process of iterative super refraction. My goal, to prove Maxwell wrong by demonstrating the lack of any electromagnetic elements within the spectrum. Having gone to inordinate lengths to destroy my research, I will not in this text be describing the details of the apparatus I constructed, but to say, it involved an arrangement of intricately designed prisms, lenses and a mirror. I would hope from this vague description you would recognise the similarities in your own research.
It took me several weeks to construct my experiment and my first attempt to perform it ended in disaster with the crucial criticality mirror shattering, inflicting minor lacerations to both my hands and face. Luckily, the mirror had only been three inches in diameter, or my wounds may have been more substantial. My cuts, however, were as nothing to my wounded pride and the next day I redoubled my efforts. Swiftly determining that impurities in the manufacturer of the mirrors had led to the failure, I set to constructing a mirror of such perfection that it could withstand the forces unleashed within the apparatus. This proved to be the most challenging aspect of the whole endeavour and after months of trial and error and countless shattered mirrors, I could not find a process that would deliver a workable surface.
It is at this point that I am compelled to make an embarrassing admission for a man of science. In my frustration and with no little goading from Maxwell, I turned to alternate text for inspiration. For science is not the only path that seeks to understand this universe. Amongst the elite membership of the Darlinger club, there are scholars of the esoteric arts who with a little persuasion provided me with a number of arcane volumes. It was within the pages of these ancient tomes that I discovered the secret of quicksilver. I do not talk of common or garden liquid mercury, but of the original form of quicksilver. A forgotten compound, the properties of which enabled me to fashion a perfect mirror. Writing these words, knowing what I do, I wish I’d never come upon those ancient tomes, for I am certain that without the secrets they held my experiment would not have continued.
If my first attempt had ended in disaster, then my second attempt ended in cataclysm. Late one evening while calibrating the device, I noticed a peculiar anomaly in the mirror’s surface. Rather than reflecting the contents of my study, the mirror appeared to shimmer. Not unlike the ripples a gentle breeze might create upon a pond. With further fine-tuning, I coaxed the ripples into an intricate interference pattern until with an audible pop the mirror turned black.
My first thought was that the mirror had shattered, but on closer inspection I found it to be intact. Perplexed how this antithesis of a mirror might have formed, I used my desk lamp to shed more light on the anomaly. To little avail, the black surface appeared to swallow all light. It was then that I heard a sound like a wave lapping on some distant shingle beach, and as it grew louder, I identified the source as emanating from the mirror. Assuming it to be a vibrational effect, I held my fingers in front of the mirror to sense any slight disturbance in the air. A steady ice-cold breeze met my fingers. A fetid gust which assaulted my senses, turning my stomach and making me gag. To describe the stench as Billingsgate fish market on a warm summer’s afternoon hardly did it justice. To my mind, it smelt of death, of things left to rot and decompose.
What had started as waves lapping on shingle was louder now, a rushing rustling noise that resonated around the room. Something about the mirror beguiled me and I was seized with the conviction that I should touch it. Imagine my amazement when my fingers met no resistance, and I reached out beyond the mirror into a dark void. Then imagine my horror upon trying to remove my fingers to see a long black tendril snake out from the gloom and wrap itself tightly around my forefinger. I will not lie, I cried out, only for my voice to be drowned out by the hissing cacophony. The harder I tried to free my finger the tighter the tendril gripped, until it cut into my flesh, sparking within me a primeval panic. Snatching my desk lamp, I removed its glass chimney to expose the naked flame and thrust it into the clasping tendril. To my relief, it recoiled back into the darkness and I shone the lamp after it.
What I saw illuminated in that flickering light twisted and writhed. What I thought was the sound of shingle was now visible as a myriad of carapaces that rubbed against each other. I wish I could provide an accurate description of those things, but it was impossible to determine where one began and another ended. They manifested as a single abysmal wave of teeth and tentacles rushing towards the light. The mirror’s edges blurred as new tendrils reached out from the void. I gust of air and I flinched as the first of the horde pushed itself up against the hole, its bulk far too large to squeeze through the small aperture. It seemed as if all Hell squirmed to enter this world; the sickening slapping muting the horrendous chittering din of the legion.
Picking up a chair, I made to smash the contraption and destroy the mirror before the nameless horrors could find a way through. The sight of straining flesh contorting to reveal a blinking red eye paralysed me. Chair raised above my head; I could not move. I looked into that eye and it looked back at me. I’m not one for exaggeration, I can assure you, but at that moment, I was in no doubt of that creature’s intentions towards me and towards everything I held dear. I recognised intelligence in that evil eye. A cruel intent, menacing in purpose. Coming to my senses, I swung the chair, and the contraption flew from the table, shattering upon the floor. The mirror, jarred from its housing, rolled across the hardwood floorboards but incredibly did not shatter. Lifting the chair up once more I stared down at the squirming mess at that eye, that damned eye, it watched as I brought the chair down with a sickening squelch. The thing twisted in agony, tendrils flailing to reach me, wrapping themselves around the chair. Again, and again I struck the beast until only the bloodied leg of the chair remained. The floor ran slick with the creature’s dark blue blood and oily ocular juices and I struggled to keep my footing. The flailing tendrils thwarted all attempts to shatter the mirror, nearly ripping the chair leg from my hand. That ruined eye still stared up at me, oozing blue blood could not hide its rage. With every passing second, the creature’s foothold in this world expanded. I was losing the fight. Unable to smash the mirror, I changed tactics to trying to upturn the mirror with the chair leg. A fruitless task that ended with the tendrils launching the chair leg across the room. With no recourse, I dived to the floor into the fetid filth and evading the lashing angry tendrils flipped the mirror by hand. It landed on the floor flat; the tendrils gone. Laying on the floor panting, I stared at the back of the mirror, in disbelief at what I’d seen. My doubts vanished when the mirror raised itself two inches and on industrious tendrils scuttled slowly across the study floor.
Frantically staring around my study, I looked for something heavy to beat the beast into submission. The heaviest thing in the room was the wooden table and slipping and sliding I dragged it after the escaping mirror. I could only just lift the oak table. When I brought it down, I added my weight, shattering the mirror. Severed tendrils twitched all around its broken shards and I fell against the table, confident that was the end of it. The tenacious tendrils had different ideas, lifting the two largest shards they made off in opposite directions. I took off in pursuit. By the time I’d finished stomping the errant shards with the heel of my boot, there was little more than black crystals left. Even then the black grains moved, and I scraped them up and disposed of them in a beaker of hydrofluoric acid. I searched the gore for hours, teasing every remnant of the mirror from the oily study floor. It terrified me that the things beyond might yet discover a way through.
Even though exhausted, I found no sleep that night. It was not until the first rays of dawn bathed my bedroom that I finally fell into a fitful sleep. I dreamt that morning that I was in a rowboat on an idyllic mirror-flat lake. It was a glorious sunset of orange and red. As I rowed across this endless lake, my oars would create ripples that smoothly spread out across the surface. It was a tranquil scene, the horrors of the night forgotten. Until my oar snagged. I tried to pull it free, but it stubbornly refused to move. Peering over the side of the boat into the gloomy waters, I saw familiar ominous shadows darting within the depths. I doubled my efforts to free the oar until a slimy tendril wrapped itself around the paddle and crept towards my fingers. I released the oar and fell back into the rowboat. The lake writhed about me and waves buffeted the boat, threatening to throw me into the frothing waters. As tentacles slithered and squirmed their way into the boat I awoke, screaming.
Why do I tell you of my nightmare? After all, the terrors of the previous night would give anyone dreadful dreams. I tell you because since that night this is the only dream I ever have. I’m always in that rowboat on the lake and I always wake up screaming. I tell you because often my nightmares are now more real than my waking life. But again, I digress. Forgive me. My story is far from over.
The following afternoon I reviewed my trashed contraption and was relieved to find the flask of acid had completed its work. Nothing remained of that dark mirror. If I’d accidentally created a door between worlds, I’d assuredly slammed it closed. Or so I thought.
That evening I’d agreed to meet Maxwell and spent much of the afternoon writing up my account of events in my journal in preparation for what I was sure would be a memorable supper. Shortly after six I washed and donned my evening suit. Stood at my dressing mirror, adjusting my bow tie, I found myself transfixed. I was unsure by what at first. Maybe the similarities of the mirror to that nightmare lake, or maybe the way the mirror caught the light of the setting sun. I can’t be sure. My eyesight blurred and blinking and rubbing my eyes, I tried to focus. The hairs on my neck bristled at the sudden drop in temperature and the sickening realisation that the problem was not my eyes. It was my reflection that appeared blurred. It felt like deja vu as I reached out a shaking hand. Horrified that my fingers would discover that dark world. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved as when my fingers touched the hard-cold glass. I ran my hands across its smooth surface and seeing my pale, worried face, laughed at the absurdity.
A clink of glass and I choked on my laughter. Another clink and I recoiled from the mirror. Only to see tiny cracks appear wherever my fingers had touched. Cracks that expanded and crawled across like frost until the entire surface was a crazed jigsaw. Staring at my distorted image, something moved, visible along every crack. A scarred red eye stared back and blinked. The mirror exploded, splinters of glass flaying every inch of my body. I staggered and fell on to the bed, a wave of pain assailing my senses. I looked back towards the mirror, expecting to see my nemesis step from that black abyss. Instead, I peered at the wooden backboard of the mirror’s stand. Agony dragged me into oblivion, and I lost consciousness.
I’d have died on my bed if it wasn’t for the quick actions of my long-time housekeeper. If she’d not stemmed the flow of blood from my countless lacerations, I’d have bled out within minutes. It was a fortnight before I gained enough strength to sit up. A month before I could walk unaided again. I’d instructed my housekeeper to remove all mirrors. It was easy to let her assume it was because of my disfigurement. I did not need a mirror to know I’d carry these scars for life. During my long recuperation, I shunned all visitors, even Maxwell who attempted to contact me on multiple occasions. I was desperate to share my experiences with him, but until I understood them, I could not bring myself to burden anyone with what I now considered my curse.
A consummate scientist, I was back in my study as soon as I could walk, drawing up plans for a new range of experiments. I needed to know the nature of this curse. My initial experiment was a little crude, limited to the materials I had in my study. I salvaged a small half-inch mirror from an old microscope buried in a draw. I arranged several thick panes of glass in front of the mirror and sat down and stared at my scarred visage. It took one and a half minutes before an almighty crack heralded the shattering of two of the layers of protective glass. The experiment confirmed my worst fears. Dozens of mirrors and protective glass panes later, I had all the empirical evidence I needed.
I believe that night when I stared into the eye of that beast it marked me and even now hunts me, intent on vengeance. My testing has established that any mirror, any location, any time, if I am visible, it will try to cross with predictably explosive results. It would seem that the black mirror, given its unique properties, acted as a portal between worlds and that this abyssal plane of horrors exists adjacent to ours. I believe mirrors act as windows between these two worlds, allowing the denizens insight into our world. There is enough reliable anecdotal evidence within the occult literature to support this hypothesis. Thankfully, it would appear there are no mirrors pure enough to bridge our worlds.
There are two aspects of my research that continue to trouble me to this day. Firstly, the time it takes the beast to find me has reduced with every encounter. As I write this, it takes only seconds for my nemesis to locate me and attack. Secondly, it does not even require a mirror now. Any reflective surface, including polished metal and glass, will suffice as I discovered walking the high street one evening. That incident left every window shattered, and the damage attributed to a rare local earthquake by the papers. I know the truth of it, having only just escaped with my life and a few more lacerations as a memento.
Ultimately, the beast got its revenge. My face is not my own anymore, I wear a mask of scars. A face a mother would not recognise and yet my worst enemy has no trouble greeting me. And then there were my spectacles. I was lucky not to lose both my eyes. Even then, even maimed the fiend is unwilling to accept an eye for an eye in this matter and continues its vendetta to this very day. At least now you might forgive my terrible handwriting and maybe understand why I say believe words may well be my last.
I know now that my infraction has sealed my fate. I am known to them and they will hunt me to the end of my days. I have accepted that. But as they know me, I know them, and I will ensure before my death that none shall learn of their existence or how they may enter this world. To that end, I have destroyed the tomes of which I spoke, both my copies and every other copy I could locate. Private collectors do not give up their trophies easily and I am not proud that I have blood on my hands. But given what I have seen, given the risks, I believe I made the only choices I could.
It is said that science is the pursuit of truth and by that definition, and by my own ideals, I am no longer a scientist, for rather than illuminate the truth I have now spent a good portion of my life suppressing it. The knowledge of our fragile reality and the proximity of the horrors beyond these are things that have no place in this universe or the minds of sane men. This universe holds boundless wonders that science should endeavour to illuminate. But I urge you, remain vigilant. There are dark corners where it is best not to shine any light for danger of attracting the attention of those things other.
I would ask that you destroy this letter and keep its contents private. It is a shame, for I believe we share much in common. I hope for both our sakes that our paths do not cross. For my part, as long as I am able, I shall keep watch for any seekers of truth like yourself who stray down this dangerous path.